Sports stars sacrificing far more during Covid crisis than their critics
An ill-advised home stay will be a more heinous sin than Flintoff’s worst drunken escapades
From riding a pedalo at 4am off the shores of St Lucia to leaving trace elements of cannabis in a hotel room, England’s cricketers have run an exotic gamut of transgressions in earning Test match bans. But just when you imagined every hedonistic extreme had been exhausted, up pops Jofra Archer with a world first for his sport. This time there is no suggestion of drinking, inhaling, or cavorting in the company of “four delicious darlings”, as Phil Tufnell once boasted of doing in Adelaide. Instead, Archer’s offence is to have rent a giant hole in his team’s Covid-secure envelope by going home to Brighton.
In future, this week’s second Test will reflect a novel list of the unavailable: James Anderson (rested), Mark Wood (rested), Archer (breach of biosecurity protocol). At a time of hair-trigger outrage, the default reaction is to condemn Archer for his fecklessness, although he seems to be doing a thorough job of that already. “I have put not only myself but the whole team and management in danger,” he said, as pundits lined up to decry him for letting himself, his team-mates and his governing body down. Truly, there is nothing like a lapse from the new norms of these all-in-ittogether times for triggering an orgy of self-righteousness.
What the sanctimony around Archer ignores, though, are the lengths to which England players must go to satisfy the Covid compliance officers. For the few media in attendance at the Ageas Bowl last week, it was not such a hardship, given they were free to head home after five days for a reacquaintance with reality. But for the players, who first formed their bubble on June 23, the isolation goes on. By the time the third Test wraps up in Manchester, they will have been living in each other’s pockets for 35 days. While the temptation is to accuse Archer of wilful disobedience, he might simply have found that the pleasures of the nightly room service menu have their limits.
Granted, it is hardly a prison sentence. The England team’s Hilton in Southampton even had its own golf course. The inconvenient truth, though, is that in the name of public entertainment, the nation’s sports stars are sacrificing a good deal more than those who so readily lambast them. Joe Root’s wife, Carrie, gave birth to their second child on July 5. Within a week, he was heading into Mancunian quarantine until the end of the month. One wonders how many fathers in the same position would be asked to square this arrangement at home, never mind how well it would be received.
The England and Wales Cricket Board could reasonably point out that the rules are non-negotiable, and that players’ livelihoods depend on adhering to them. With each Test worth £20million to the ECB, the sport fears that any errors could bring the entire Covidproofed edifice tumbling down. The Government has all sports backed into such a tight corner that only the severest restrictions and the fullest obedience will do.
Archer’s misdemeanour proves that none of this is sustainable. To suggest that his overnight stay in Brighton has endangered the health of his peers is a stretch. None of the bubbles that sports are trying to create are truly airtight. For a start, England players were at liberty to make the journey from Southampton to Manchester in their own cars. Strictly speaking, any of them could have broken the seal just by stopping at Cherwell Valley services for a cup of tea and a sausage roll.
Ultimately, sport’s draconian Covid measures are about optics as much as public health. Just as important as the insistence on people doing the right thing is the fact that they are seen to do so. This is why broadcasters, in their desperation to demonstrate observance of the two-metre rule – softened to one metre plus mitigations over three weeks ago, if anyone noticed – are positioning interviewers and their subjects so far apart on screen that they are barely in the same postcode.
The obsession with setting an example is pernicious. Indeed, the pile-on against Archer is magnified by the popular belief that he has fallen short of the standards by which we must all abide. But as Carlos Brathwaite, his friend and West Indies opponent, noted: “He’s not there for your son or daughter to look up to. He’s there to live his life and do what he does best.” Alas, the vigour with which Covid rules are policed ensures that aspersions will be cast on his character. An ill-advised home stay will be depicted as a more heinous sin than Freddie Flintoff ’s worst drunken escapades. The lack of proportion is wearying. Archer has broken a rule and is paying the price. Any interpretation beyond that is moralising.
Never mind sports figures being the problem children of Planet Covid, they are often the most dutiful rulefollowers of all. Take this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, where all UK citizens – in other words, almost 90 per cent of the paddock – are prevented from venturing anywhere beyond their hotels or the track. Should they stray, they risk a £13,000 fine or a prison sentence. While it is difficult to summon much sympathy for a driver as privileged as Lewis Hamilton, the rules he must honour are suffocating. Even while spraying champagne post-victory, he is required to wear a mask.
Elite sport is doing everything in its power to show that it is beyond reproach. Government diktats demand as much. But the strange, sanitised world that has been curated cannot last. Sooner or later, as Archer’s Brighton detour shows, the halo will slip and the temptations of a life worth living will become impossible to resist.
‘This is not a grave matter of state,” intoned Clive Tyldesley, rather begging the question of why he had recorded a two-minute home video for his announcement this week.
The news? That he was being replaced as ITV’s lead football commentator by Sam Matterface, in a move that left him “upset, annoyed and baffled”.
Tyldesley, by any gauge, is a superb commentator, whose lyricism is woven into our memories of two decades’ worth of England matches and Champions League finals.
But this orchestrated lament for his own career was not his finest hour. It deprived Matterface, 42, of what should have been one of the most satisfying moments of his life.
In any case, Tyldesley, at 65, has not been sacked, merely moved sideways. The outpouring of pity he has brought on is excessive.
This should be about a TV personality changing roles, not the fall of some inviolable national institution.
Party time: Andrew Flintoff (far left) and Kevin Pietersen arrive at Downing Street the day after England’s Ashes victory in 2005, and (below) Jofra Archer